Saturday, 20 August 2016

How Much is Too Much Planning?

I talked a while back, here and to a lesser extent here, about how my novel writing process has gone from being a fairly laid back and make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair to a current level of preparation that could justly be compared with that of minor military campaigns.

And honestly, I'd come to the conclusion a while back that I was preparing as much as anyone reasonably could: plotting out the entire novel as a detailed synopsis and then breaking it down into a chapter plan before a single word hits the page, that's pretty organised, right?  And it seemed to be working, too: with the skeleton of a plot in place, I was freer to focus on characters, dialogue, action, all the fun stuff that can sometimes end up being two dimensional in a first draft when simply keeping everything rolling becomes the overriding impulse.

Then I got to my current work in progress, and everything exploded.  The thing is, it's a book that requires an astonishing amount of world-building - the world-building, really is what it's all about - and not having that ready in advance has been disastrous.  I mean, not disastrous, I'll get it figured out, but right now I'm thinking that'll mean an entire draft more than I'd normally do, which is hardly a good thing.  Plus, the writing's been like pulling teeth, and then putting those teeth in a sock and hitting myself in the face with it, because it's not fun at all knowing you're doing a rubbish job of something and I've been doing a really rubbish job of inventing a complicated alien society and ecosystem on the fly.

At the same time as that was sinking in I was talking to people about my synopsis for the next book in line, and the feedback that came from a couple of readers was that they weren't clear on how the central relationship was supposed to play out.  As we discussed it, my writer friend Charlotte Bond suggested I should try putting together some character profiles.  My first reaction was one of wariness, since that sounds awfully like a writing exercise and writing exercises are one of the many things I classify as people who claim to be writing doing something else instead.  But I didn't have any better solution, and I really did need to get this stuff worked out.  So I've been giving it a go, and, what do you know, the results have been surprisingly great so far.  Looking at the characters in isolation is pushing me to delve into their motivations and backstories in a way that I know I'd struggle to do if I was worrying about having to keep the wheels of a plot spinning.  Minor characters are developing a level of complexity I'd normally reserve for my leads.  And now I'm thinking that I really need to do something similar for the world: the major locations, the major systems, perhaps even the major events of its history.

I've always been distrustful of this sort of my approach, too, and for the exact same reason.  If I'm honest, whenever I hear fantasy writers (it's always fantasy writers) talking about how they map out every last corner of their world before they begin, down to what rodents like to eat each other and who cleans out the privies in that tiny village the characters won't ever visit, I tend to assume that they are in fact prevaricating.  Because, you know, they are.  But I'm telling myself that this feels different: I already have the novel planned in its entirety, so I'm not trying to craft anything extraneous; the character traits and relationships I'm figuring out will almost certainly find their way into the final book, and I have faith that so will the world-building, once I get to that.

But where will this all end? I have no idea, though it's easy to start imagining nightmare scenarios where advance plotting means writing the entire novel before I ever start writing the novel, trapping myself into some kind of weird Möbius reality in which planning only ever leads to more planning.  And wait, there's a word for that, isn't?  I'm pretty sure it's called prevarication.  So let's not do that.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Upcoming Appearances

I haven't been out and about quite as much as I'd have liked this year, because money basically, and I'm sad to be missing my first Nine Worlds this weekend - everyone have fun without me, and please spare no thought for me slaving away at a hot word processor! - but I do have a couple of things coming up that are worth a mention.

First up, I'll apparently be on a panel at Fantasycon-by-the-Sea.  It's called Wanted: Dead or Alive and the topic is "Is the anti-hero the new hero in fiction?"  To which the answer is, of course, no, and so I suspect that myself, Adrian Faulkner, Carrie Buchanan, Neil Williamson and Georgia Duffy will just use the question as a springboard to discuss how neat anti-heroes are, because anti-heroes are definitely neat.  I should probably talk about Easie Damasco, but I suspect I'll get distracted by Dime, the protagonist of my current edit-in-progress, a glorious son of a bitch who makes poor old Easie look like a good Samaritan by comparison.

But Fantasycon isn't for a couple of months, and my other event is a whole lot sooner: two weeks away, in fact.  That would be the inaugural meet of Humber SFF, which I'm honoured to be one of the two guest speakers at, along with Daniel Godfrey, whose debut New Pompeii came out just a couple of months ago.  There aren't many things that would lure me so close to the city of my birth, but I'm looking forward to this: Shellie Horst has been organising with a deal of enthusiasm and I'm a fan of the template set for these things by the similar events in York and Sheffield (and isn't it time for another one of those?)  I'm supposed to be reading from my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, but I did that at Edgelit, and now I have a longing to go instead with something from my unannounced next novel and then swearing everyone to secrecy afterwards.  So that's one more reason to come along, together with the fact that the Hull area is long overdue a group like this and it's in a pub - a really good pub, from what I hear - and that Daniel's book sounds particularly interesting: you might get to hear a chapter from a work in progress that doesn't officially exist yet, unless I chicken out and just go with a story from Sign in the Moonlight like I'm meant to.

Anyway, the details are here - wait, is that a real deer's head? - but basically it's a case of being at The Monks Walk pub in Beverley at 4pm on Saturday the 27th of August and then drinking alcoholic beverages and listening to writer words, followed by more drinking alcoholic beverages and hanging out with like-minded folks.  Hopefully I'll see you there.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 13

What's this?  Another good outing?  With nothing I outright hated, a couple of things I really enjoyed, and one sorta, kinda borderline classic?  Nineties anime ... truly you're the gift that just keeps on giving!  This time through, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross II: Lovers Again, Dirty Pair Flash: Angels in Trouble, Red Hawk: Weapon of Death, and Memories, which gets bonus points for not having a colon in its title.

Super Dimensional Fortress Macross II: Lovers Again, 1992, dir: Ken'ichi Yatagai

Macross II, first proper sequel to epic sci-fi series Super Dimension Fortress Macross - which came to the West as part of the weirdly bastardised Robotech saga - is not much loved among Macross fans: missing the show's original creator, this six part OVA follow-up is widely considered as merely a rehash with better animation, covering the same basic plot beats and themes with a broadly similar group of characters.  But let's for the moment assume you haven't seen Robotech (I haven't) and flip that on its head: what we have here is a neat encapsulation of one of the best-loved anime series of the eighties, with a fresh coat of well above par nineties OVA production values.

With all of that said, Macross II takes a fair while to get good.  The first two or three episodes take their time in setting up the conflict and characters, though even then they have their moments: who knew that Macross predicted Futurama's splendid Monument Beach gag by some seven years?  Still, it's only towards the end, when events get serious and epic and even rather apocalyptic that the show finds its feet.  And even at its best, it remains thoroughly silly: in particular, characters are constantly doing irrational things to keep the plot on course, and it's one of those stories that could end in five minutes if the villain only didn't hold back the vast bulk of their forces until our heroes finally have the resources to counter them.

Still, those are acceptable forms of silliness when one is in the habit of dealing with nineties anime, and didn't bother me unduly, especially once the pace began to gather momentum.  A more serious criticism might be that, when you strip it right down, there's not a great deal here besides a run of the mill alien invasion plot dressed up with plentiful amounts of giant robots.  Unlike with, say, Gunbuster, there's nothing that makes Macross II really special, besides the quirks that are apparently common to the Macross franchise: an involved back story and a strange emphasis on music that justifies unusual amounts of J-pop.  And for that matter, this really isn't on a par with Macross Plus, which would see the return of series creator Shōji Kawamori.  So, no classic then, but if you're new to the Macross franchise, enjoy epic scale sci-fi and want a way to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon, Macross II might be just what you need.

Dirty Pair Flash: Angels in Trouble, 1994, dir: Tsukasa Sunaga

That title's going out of its way to sound dodgy, isn't it?  There's good reason to suspect that this might have been a deliberate move on ADV's part - we're very much in the time period, after all, when anime was still selling in the West entirely on the notion that it was either ultraviolent or pornographic - but it doesn't do a great deal to reflect what DPF:AiT actually is.  What with have here is a reboot of the long-running Dirty Pair franchise, reimagining the adult protagonists of the original works as troublesome teenagers with mild delinquent tendencies, not too much in the way of common sense and a habit for hair-trigger violence.  Kei and Yuri are freelance future Trouble Consultants with the World Welfare and Works Agency - but as we meet them, neither their careers nor their partnership look like lasting very long, for Yuri is more interested in skiving off and dating and Kei is a gun nut with attitude issues, and if that sounds like a setup for half the buddy cop stories ever told then congratulations!  You have the number of Dirty Pair Flash.

I'm not complaining, mind you.  There's much to be said for a formula well done, and if Dirty Pair Flash has nary a beat anywhere that hasn't been done before, it at least hits them all with style.  At worst that means a drab corporate villain of the kind that nineties anime seemed to delight in and a silent but beautiful female assassin straight out of who knows how many similar stories, but at best - which is more often - it means episodes that are all too eager to devolve into hectic action sequences at the slightest excuse.  The first episode's is probably the best, a fine bit of farce that starts small and snowballs merrily, but a later shootout in a spaceport where absolutely everyone turns out to be a potential assassin gets all of the best visual gags.

At any rate, I consider myself a convert, having already picked up the other two DPF volumes; the six episodes here are a ton of fun, and perhaps even more than the sum of their parts.  Though its characters might be thin in theory, Dirty Pair Flash treats them seriously, and I was shocked to realise that by the end I was as absorbed just as much by how Yuri and Kei would learn to work together and grow up enough to save the galaxy as I was by the dippy action scenes; again, there's much to be said for stock characters in stock situations when everything's constructed with enough clear affection to draw you in.  This is nigh on classic nineties anime, and while classic in this case should be taken more as perfectly typical than great, the show actually straddles the line between the two pretty fairly.

Red Hawk: Weapon of Death, 1995, dir: Sang Il Sim

There are probably only two really salient facts that you need to decide whether Red Hawk: Weapon of Death is likely to interest you at all: it's a martial arts anime from 1995 and it's only available as part of Manga's budget Collection range, with all of the horrid, subtitle-free cheapness that implies.

On the first of those counts, Red Hawk is neither very good nor very bad.  Its protagonist, the titular, Zorro-like masked vigilante, its main baddie and his weird henchmen, the brother versus brother dynamic that becomes a big deal towards the end, even the supporting cast are all resolutely standard fare, but that's not quite to say they're not entertaining.  Granted, some of the basic plot points fail to work at all, and there's no real suggestion that the filmmakers were invested in them.  It's obvious, for example, that main character Jan Chang is the masked vigilante Red Hawk and yet the movie obfuscates the fact to no real purpose, dragging the reveal out for a little lame comedy but not much else.  It's obvious, too, almost from the beginning, that Jan Chang will be fighting his brother, and even the whys and wherefores are readily predictable.  In fact, once the opening scenes are out of the way, the film couldn't travel in much more of a straight line - though even then while fudging its character's motivations for no clear reason.  As with so many of these plots, there's really no reason that Red Hawk couldn't have got to the third act climax years before, and the sole explanation for why these events are happening now seems to be - well, that they are.

This probably sounds awful, but at worst it's functional, and the general breeziness keeps it afloat, along with some well above average animation; in particular, the animators are careful to get the motion of human bodies right, which when you're making an animated martial arts movie is a wise decision indeed.  The look of Red Hawk advantages it immensely, and brings a degree of excitement to fights that are too ready to descend into special-move swapping - though a couple of exceptions, especially towards the end, stand out through a greater degree of ingenuity.

At this point, then, Red Hawk falls firmly into the camp of "recommended, if you like this sort of thing" - I'd say that I enjoyed it more that the previous year's Street Fighter 2 The Animated Movie, for example, which it resembles in a number of suspiciously specific ways.  However, there remains the fact that what we have is a Manga Collection release, and few things are so guaranteed to turn watchable nonsense into subpar tosh.  We have the usual playing in a small box in the middle of the screen incompetence, the usual barely functional dub, and of course the usual clumsily inserted swearing that clearly isn't what the characters are saying (though that last does produce a genuinely hilarious moment near the end.)  Were it not for that general Collection-ness, I'd recommend Red Hawk on the strength of the animation alone, which really does make the whole thing more watchable than it has any right to be.  But it's hard to concentrate on good animation when it's been reduced to a box in the middle of your screen, or when you're trying to shut out mediocre American voice actors shouting lines that obviously have little relation to anything the characters were ever intended to be saying.  A thumbs down, then, but with my ire directed much more at Manga than poor Red Hawk itself.

Memories, 1995, dir's: Kôji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura, Katsuhiro Ôtomo

It's safe to say that you're unlikely to have seen another film quite like Memories, and even those movies that inhabit a similar space - which is to say, collections of animation shorts presenting themselves as feature films - are rare and far between.  Yet here we and are and here's Memories: a hugely expensive, lavish collection of three all but entirely unrelated stories, with the only combining thread being that they're all based on works by writer / director Katsuhiro Otomo.

But therein lies the rationale: for Katsuhiro Otomo was the creator of Akira, and Akira was a goldmine, both within and outside Japan, in the latter case proving the driving force towards the acceptance and awareness of anime in the west.  And even some years later (Memories was released in 1995, seven years after Akira) it's safe to assume that Otomo remained a name to conjure with.

I have no idea how successful Memories would prove to be, though now that I come to research it I discover that Otomo has made a total of four of these anthology movies over the course of his career, the latest being Short Peace in 2013, so perhaps the answer is "not so badly."  But it's precisely as easier to say why it might have done well as why it might have flopped horridly: it contains one near masterpiece, and one short that isn't much good at all.

To start with the positive: Magnetic Rose is fine enough that it makes Memories worth seeing all on its own, and fortunately it's also the longest piece at a (just slightly bloated) 45 minutes.  It follows the crew of a spaceship who, on answering a distress call to investigate a dilapidated wreck, find themselves in spaces and situations that couldn't possibly be occurring.  The results are a bit like a less overtly horror telling of Event Horizon, (which it preceded by two years), except with more opera, deeply lovely animation, and a script by a certain Satoshi Kon, who soon after would go on to direct Perfect Blue and begin proving himself one of the greatest writer / directors of all time.  Without Kon's work, Magnetic Rose would still be pretty damn good; with him it becomes a tangled, hypnotic study of the ways in which the past infects and poisons the present.

Then Magnetic Rose ends and Stink Bomb starts and - well, I won't say Memories breaks down altogether, but it comes damned close.  Stink Bomb, the story of a sad sack, dim-witted salaryman named Nobuo who inadvertently turns himself into a living biological weapon is, at its finest, a good example of a solid mid-nineties anime story.  But at it's worst, it's damned aggravating.  The thing is, Stink Bomb is striving for satire, but its plot only keeps stumbling along because everyone involved behaves in the most idiotic way possible, and particularly Nobuo, whose rampant stupidity costs a great many lives.  So lousy satire then, but there are times when Stink Bomb finds its groove - like Magnetic Rose, it relies heavily on its music - and in those moments, as I say, it's a perfectly solid example of what anime at this point was just fine at doing, only with the utterly splendid level of animation that drives the whole project.

Last up, and by far the most interesting section, comes Cannon Fodder, directed by Otomo himself.  Cannon Fodder is the near-plotless tale of a city that exists only to war against an unseen, probably nonexistent enemy, and as a mood piece designed to develop one idea to the fullest extent possible, it's pretty great.  Not to mention as a technical exercise: it's the only one of the three parts that moves substantially away from realism, with its characters looking very much like soldiers who've just blundered back from the Somme, but more to the point it's shot in one extraordinary take, using what must in 1995 have been cutting edge CG work.  It's thrilling while you're watching it, but kind of airy and easy to forget afterwards, the lack of a narrative feeling like more of a problem in retrospect.

Still, it's not a bad ending to a film that somehow manages to be both totally flawed and totally indispensable.  If you have any interest at all in animation then you need to see Memories, because some of the finest work ever produced in the field is to be seen here.  And if you like anime or even only science fiction then Magnetic Rose is a must watch.  If the entire film were up to the same standard then Memories would probably be the pinnacle of nineties anime; as it is, it's a minor classic at most.  It's fascinating, sort of a mess, often dazzling, and I really wish I loved it more than I do, but still I'd recommend it unreservedly.

-oOo-

Getting to the end of this, I find myself wanting to watch some more Dirty Pair Flash, which is just fine because there are two more volumes to get through.  And in retrospect, this was a fun batch, all told; if every low point was only as low as Red Hawk and every high point as high as Memories then I'd be a happy compulsive watcher of nineties anime!




[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11, Part 12]

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Imagine A World Without Our Nostalgia

I went to see X-Men: Apocalypse a few weeks ago - yeah, not exactly a series high point, is it? - and as I was walking back out through the cinema, past the posters for upcoming movies, for the first time I realised something that had been boiling away in my subconscious for an awfully long time now.  Not only were there barely any original properties, there was barely anything that wasn't directed squarely at those who, like me, grew up in the eighties and nineties.  Every major blockbuster was aimed at me.  And that sucked.

What struck me in that moment is that, as a generation, we've failed miserably to offer ourselves our fair share of innovative concepts, let alone to do the same for those who've come after.  Many of my friends are parents, and I refuse to believe that all they want to entertain their children with is the chewed up cud of their own childhoods.  Yet that seems to be what we get, and oftentimes all we get: old toys, old cartoons, old films, old comics, glossed up to look just new enough that we can pretend we haven't seen them all before, but kept sufficiently intact that we can still persuade ourselves that not a whole lot has changed since our formative years.

Now, I'm as guilty of this as anyone.  Well, maybe not as anyone, but I'm not claiming innocence.  I mean, anybody who follows the blog even slightly will have noticed that I've spent a good part of the last year watching Japanese cartoons from two decades ago.  Still, I've come to a lot of new stuff too.  And I like that stuff as much, and usually more, than the things I value from my childhood and teens.  There are stunning films, books, comics and music being produced, right now, and there are uniquely talented new voices coming up all the time, just trying to make themselves heard.

So here's a thought: what if we just let it all go?  What if we could all unanimously accept that, yeah, the cartoons and video games and comics and movies and toys that were around when we were growing up were pretty good, some of them even pretty great, but that was then and this is now - and in any case, we still have almost all of those things, should we want them.  They're not going anywhere.  But nor are they the be all and end all.

Now I realise this sentiment gets aired a lot in one form of another - but it's usually coming from people with no affection for the properties in question, and I don't at all class myself in that category.  I have a lot of love for many of these things.  I'm as excited for a new comic book movie as anyone, I long for a genuinely good Transformers movie, and I'll be really happy if and when we get another G. I. Joe picture.  It's not like I hate this stuff, only that I don't feel altogether comfortable around it anymore.  More and more it seems that the influence of me and people like me is stifling, and that it's time we backed off, or perhaps applied our fannish energies in a more constructive fashion.

So ... imagine a world without our nostalgia.  Just spend a moment imagining how that might look.  Imagine that instead of Star Wars 8 we got a new science fiction property that was as thrilling to the kids of today as Star Wars was for us back in the day.  Imagine that instead of a new Ghostbusters movie with the genders switched we could have something fresh that bottled that same lightning and could have an all-female core cast without it being dismissed as a gimmick.  Imagine a world where new ideas and new attitudes weren't just trying to sneak through the cracks of our obsession with our own childhoods.  Imagine what would happen if we, as a generation, released this stranglehold we have over popular culture.

It's a pipe dream, sure.  But there are steps that we could be making in that direction, if we wanted to.  Maybe if we were all more open to new ideas then we wouldn't be here, staring at a box office filled waist deep with the slop of our recycled youth; maybe if we paid more attention, instead of seeing things that in all likelihood will be crap just because we recognize the brand, then smart genre movies like Ex Machina and Predestination wouldn't be such a precious rarity.  I guess, engage a little harder with your entertainment is what I'm suggesting.  Perhaps expect a little more, and realise that there's space in your head and in the world for new ideas.  Maybe don't tear into the Jupiter Ascending's of this world without even bothering to watch them.  You know, stuff like that.

Or don't, and maybe we'll finally get that M.A.S.K movie they keep promising.  Oh, and Thundercats, that's happening soon right?  And weren't they even talking about a Visionaries movie, even though no one ever gave the slightest damn about Visionaries?  You know what, actually I'm easy either way.  But could we at least all agree to keep Michael Bay away from these things?  Because Michael Bay's M.A.S.K is not a thing I have any need to see.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight: Launching at Edge-Lit

 I think that the last time I had a book launch was for my first novel Giant Thief, five or so years ago, and that wasn't much of a thing all told - more of a book hermitage, really - so there's no shortage of reasons for me to be looking forward to this coming Saturday.

The thing is, as I never tire of pointing out, it's not so long ago that it seemed as though The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories was never going to happen, as the collection I'd spent three years trying to make a reality swam around the edges of the sucking whirlpool that was the demise of Spectral Press.  Then, when I found a home for the paperback early in the year with the wonderful Digital Fiction Publishing, I had to try and accept that the hardback edition - which had been my dream for the project all along, and the reason I persuaded Duncan Kay to provide his gorgeous illustrations - was going to fall by the wayside.  Then, somehow, I convinced Ian Whates, head honcho of perhaps my favourite UK small press, NewCon, to pick up the project, and not only that but Ian fell in love with it enough to give the book the sort of deluxe treatment I'd barely dared dream of.  And now here we (nearly) are and it's my second ever book launch, and the book in question is a thing of almost obscene beauty.  Oh, and I'll be launching beside one of my favourite authors, Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose collection of short fiction from perhaps my favourite ever series, The Shadows of the Apt, will also be out from NewCon on Saturday, which makes a nice sort of poetical sense given that Adrian was kind enough to write the introduction for The Sign in the Moonlight.

Phew!

So that'll be happening between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., and alongside mine and Adrian's books are a collection from V. C. Linde and one from Mr. Whates himself, released by the ever foxy and ever spirited Fox Spirit.  Oh, and there'll be free wine.  Wait, I wrote that in lower case, didn't I?  What I of course meant to say was, THERE'LL BE FREE WINE.

Damn it, there must be a way to do flashing text in blogger.  No?  Really?

So do come along, please.  Even if you can't afford to buy anything, it's not often that getting drunk in the daytime at someone else's expense can be passed off as supporting the arts - but in this case it clearly is, and moreover it might be another five years before I get to do another of these things and I'd like to make this one count.

Oh, and if you really can't make it, please do consider picking up a copy here!  You'll miss out on the free wine, but you'll still get a gorgeous, fully illustrated book full of some of the finest short fiction I've penned, so there's that.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 12

So here we are, and here's more nineties anime, caught as ever on the cusp of the ridiculous and the sublime - though perhaps with rather too much of the former and not a great deal of the latter this time around.  And I say this as someone who sat through the Legend of the Overfiend sequel so that maybe no one else would ever have to.

But it's not all doom and gloom and horrifying tentacle monsters!  This time around: Burn Up WUrotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon WombAll Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku and Tokyo Revelation.

Burn Up W, 1996, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

Burn up W is a four part OVA intended, so far as I can tell, as an introduction to the Burn up Excess series that would soon follow; it certainly plays out in a decidedly prologue-like fashion, ending with its characters at what feels like the jumping off point for a main act.  That's fine and all, and not really a problem - but there are problems, and they're not small ones.  I'd actually had some hopes for this, not based on much beside the box art and description it has to be said, but I'd be wasting my time entirely with this nineties anime thing if I didn't have a certain soft spot for violent comedy action shows with huge-eyed female protagonists.

Burn up W plays on that affection, and hard.  It's nothing short of brazen in its efforts to show off its protagonists being violent and at the same time scantily clad; we meet one character via a lingering shot of her prone, sweating body as she grumbles about how she's not allowed to fire the sniper rifle she's holding, which gives as fair an impression of what's going on here as anything could.  Though in fairness, you almost have to respect the degree of setup the show goes through to have one of the characters bungee jump naked out of a helicopter.

And anyway, that's still not the problem, unless you really want it to be.  In fact, for the first two episodes, there isn't much of a problem at all.  Part one, featuring a bizarre hostage situation, is pretty good; part two, where the show starts aggressively parodying other shows, is really fun, and one dig at Neon Genesis Evangelion (a giant purple mech that "takes 29 minutes and 30 seconds to confirm a target") had me in stitches.  Which, yes, says more about me than Burn up W, but still.

Anyway, then it falls apart.  Burn up W takes a tonal shift for its second half that nothing in the first half could hope to support.  Suddenly things get awfully dark and violent - whilst at the same time still being essentially a goofy, fan service-heavy pastiche of Bubblegum Crisis - and the bottom falls out of the whole business with an almost audible whoosh.  It's a terrible decision, and the most generous interpretation is that it's a parody of the similarly terrible decisions that other nineties anime shows made, which is a fun idea but I suspect giving too much credit.  Whatever the case, the end result is tough to be positive about.  Burn up W will always have a fond place in my heart for arbitrarily sending up Evangelion, but it takes a little more than that to get a recommendation round here.  (Though, let's face it, only a little.)

Urotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon Womb, 1993, dir: Hideki Takayama

Here's the great thing about watching Legend of the Demon Womb: now that I've done it, I don't have to keep seeing the damn thing on my shelf.  And, since that doesn't help anyone but me much, here's another positive: Urotsukidôji II is not half so abominable and repellent as Urotsukidôji, the film better known to western audiences as Legend of the Overfiend, and the movie that introduced the wider world to the peculiar sub-genre of Japanese erotica that is tentacle rape pornography.

That is about as far as we're likely to get with listing positives, for "less abominable and repellent than Legend of the Overfiend" should in no way be construed as a recommendation.  Though, it has to be said, it feels like one while you're watching Legend of the Demon Womb, and it's hard not to mistake that sense of relief for vague and intermittent enjoyment.  I'll go further ... Demon Womb is an all-round better film than its progenitor, with a more tolerable protagonist, considerably more imagination, less of an emphasis on sexualised violence and considerably more solid animation.

Which still shouldn't be construed as a recommendation.  For Demon Womb remains horrible and rapey and frequently dull, with a middle act that mostly sits around spinning its ugly wheels to minimal effect.  But, unlike Overfiend, a movie that managed to be at once vilely unpleasant and at the same time basically dull, it's rarely flat-out terrible.  It even starts rather intriguingly, at least if you consider an occult Nazi experiment to summon Norse gods via the medium of a rape carousel intriguing.  And, as with Overfiend, the third act is by far the best, with that selfsame Nazi rape carousel popping back up, (it looks disturbingly like a birthday cake), veritable tides of blood, absurd violence and an emphasis on the one character who isn't made intolerable by the staggeringly poor US dub.

But, you know - still not a recommendation.  I'm trying to be as light hearted as I can here, because that's a big part of what these posts are about, but any review in which you type the word "rape" four times (now five) is, with the tiniest handful of exceptions, going to be for a product that's better off left to rot in the grubbier corners of history.  The thing is, you don't need to watch an Urotsukidôji movie, ever; I promise you, there's no hole in your life that will ever filled by what these things have to offer.  However, if you should absolutely feel the need then, all things being equal, Legend of the Demon Womb is without a doubt the one to go for.

All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, 1992, dir: Yoshio Ishida

So last time around I said that I'd have to choose between watching Urotsukidôji II and All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, but I realised quickly that the two weren't mutually exclusive - and indeed that after the former I might find myself really, really in need of the latter.  And so it proved.

Now, I'd be lying if I said that I bought All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku for any other reason than the title.  All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku!  What does that even mean?  Well, it turns out that, like many an anime title that sounded hopelessly bonkers at first glance, this is just literalism gone faintly wrong.  For this is indeed a show about a cat girl named Nuku Nuku, and she is indeed pretty versatile and, er, cultural.  Nineties anime: it does what it says on the tin, even when what is says on the tin makes no damn sense.

Anyway, Nuku Nuku is the brainchild of eccentric genius roboticist Kyusaku Natsume, who we meet at a particularly hectic point in his life: he's at once breaking up with his billionaire businesswoman wife Akiko, stealing the prototype robot he built for her and kidnapping their son Ryunosuke.  And when a kitten that Ryunosuke has tried to save becomes a casualty of the ensuing conflict, Kyusaku hits on the obvious solution.  At least if you consider transferring the cat's consciousness into an untested, military grade robot obvious - which, if you're a lightly comic anime OVA from the front end of the nineties, you surely do.

This leaves us in a broadly similar place to last month's Twin Signal, though with a higher budget that delivers some above average animation, especially in the frequent scenes of city-spanning destruction.  But oddly, what elevates All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is not the general insanity but the slight degree of seriousness underpinning it.  There's no arc plot to speak of, but what we do get is a running custody battle - frequently fought with live ammunition - between Kyusaku and Akiko, both of whom are fond parents but deeply flawed individuals and both of whom are loved equally by Ryunosuke, who makes no bones about the fact that he'd just like to see his folks back together.  The sweet-natured Nuku Nuku, for that matter, feels much the same way, even going so far as refer to Akiko as mama-san.  And it soon becomes apparent that, despite their utter incompatibility, Kyusaku and Akiko still have a degree of fondness for each other.

If that doesn't sound like particularly rich material for comedy then that's probably because it isn't, and it takes a certain delicate balance to get right, one that All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku by turns gets close to, nails perfectly and forgets about altogether.  It's a wildly inconsistent show, surely by design, but the one episode where everything comes together is worth the effort of watching alone.  It centers on the show's strongest character, the marvelous Akiko, whose conflict between fond mum and gleeful super-villain comes to a head when she's blackmailed by Kyusaku into playing the role of traditional Japanese housewife, with the reward being that she gets to live with her son.  It's a surprisingly perceptive examination of what it means to combine being a successful woman and a mother in modern Japan, and it ends in a battle between a tank-driving Akiko and a robotic cat girl, because of course it does.

Ultimately, the very best thing about All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is that title; it's a reliably fun show, but not quite consistent enough to count as a must-watch.  But if you have a fondness for daft nineties anime humour then this is definitely towards the upper end, and well worth a look.

Tokyo Revelation, 1994, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

Given that it combines two of my absolutely least favourite things in nineties anime - Manga's invariably half-arsed Collection series of budget releases and plots involving invading demons - Tokyo Revelation was something of a pleasant surprise.  Though to some extent it ticks all the relevant boxes that make both of those things so obnoxious, it has a few notable virtues that soften the blow somewhat.  So on the one hand we have Manga's typically low standards, and the obligatory nudity and gore, not to mention plenty of swearing on the dub to push up the certificate.  But on the other, that dub actually isn't all that bad, and the whole thing isn't half as grubby as an Urotsukidôji movie, or even something like Wicked City.  That's the crucial difference, I think; Tokyo Revelation manages to circumvent both the utter sleaziness of some similar titles and the desperate cheapness of much of the Collection line-up, and in so doing ends up being unexpectedly likable.

Let's not go mad here, though, we're still talking about something pretty trashy.  Again, though, the specific nature of that trashiness is at least more fun that nasty.  In particular, this reminded me of that whole weird hysteria around Dungeons and Dragons turning kids into satanists: bad guy Akito turns to devil-worship after being bullied as a child, and even does his demon summoning with computers, just in case "bullied kid who becomes a satanist" wasn't enough nerd panic.  Oh, and he's gay, a fact that Tokyo Revelation handles ... well, not terribly.  And really, the fact that that detail's in there at all speaks to why is something rather decent.  Even though none of the characters get a great deal of development amid the 55 minute running time, there's at least the sense that they're people with hopes, dreams and past lives, and that counts for a lot.  It's broad strokes stuff, of course, but at least it's there, and when you're hammering through a busy plot at the rate that Tokyo Revelation does, making time for a few decent character beats counts for at least something.

The biggest positive here, though, is the quality of animation, which is surprisingly impressive for 1994, and downright startling for a Collection release.  It's not revolutionary, of course, but it's certainly good, and - along with some pleasing character designs and detailed backgrounds - the result is definitely attractive.  Again, this makes a big difference, and speaks to why Tokyo Revelation is worth at least a glance: it might be familiar, but it does its thing better than most.  I can't quite stretch that out to an actual recommendation; still, you can pick it up for nothing these days and there are surely worse ways to waste an hour.

-oOo-

As we edge closer to oblivion as a species and as we start to tot up just what we've done with our time on the planet, I'd like to think that All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is something we can all be proud of - if only because the name makes me chuckle ever time I type it.  On the other hand, if there's any kind of afterlife or cosmic judge, we're probably going to have to answer for the Urotsukidôji franchise sooner or later.  Which, with Tokyo Revelation and Burn Up W already beginning to fade from memory, I suppose leaves this post fairly balanced, karma-wise.

Still, all things being equal, I hope I get to watch some better stuff for the next one!





[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10, Part 11]

Sunday, 3 July 2016

We're All Slush Readers Now

Woah, that title's a total lie.  But, I don't know, I thought it sounded cool.  At any rate, I at least am now a slush reader, an occupation I turned my back on many years ago when I realised it was thankless and joyless and payless and was recently sucked back into when someone actually offered me money to do it.  As such, I'm now the official slush wrangler for Digital Fantasy Fiction, imprint of Digital Fiction Publishing.  Yay!

And actually, to my surprise, I'm rather enjoying the experience so far.  It helps, frankly, that Digital only take reprints; that right there weeds out the slushiest of slush, and so far I haven't had to deal with anything too awful.  In fact, the overall standard has been rather good, all told.  However, I've noticed a few early trends, and I thought I'd share them here, because, who knows, the information might actually be useful to someone somewhere.  Oh, and I should state clearly that the following represents in no way the policy or opinions of Digital Fiction Publishing or of my fellow slush readers, who are probably all much better, wiser and less bloody-minded people than me.
  • First up, we aren't getting that many submissions.  Which is great because I'm quite lazy, but seriously people?  Money for reprints, that's a mug's game.  A good chunk of my short story income these days is off reprints, and it's literally money for old rope.  Well, not literally.  That would suggest that I wrote my stories on old rope, which would be an awesome gimmick, especially if I was writing about pirates or hangmen or, um, rope makers.  Anyway, point being, it's idiotic not to sell the reprint rights on your work if and whenever you can.  Send us some stuff.
  • Also: people who ignore the guidelines are severely irritating.  I know everyone says this, but seriously, it's true and it's a big deal.  And (though admittedly this isn't in Digital's guidelines) the reason markets tend to ask for standard manuscript format is because it's fairly painless on the eyes.  Fortunately, most everybody seems to be using it, but the one time someone didn't I got pretty grumpy.  And rejected their story.  Which, in fairness, generally wasn't much good, and would have been rejected anyway.  But at least I'd have been in a better mood.  I'm no longer sure what my point is here.
  • Wait, I know!  Here's the thing: I'm not reading stories here because I have a burning desire to read them, I'm reading them because it's a job.  That means I'm immediately predisposed not to like anything I read, even though I like fantasy and short stories and reading fantasy short stories.  I guess the moment something becomes work, all of that goes out the window.  And this, I realise now, is why editors and slush readers say half the things they do: about correct formatting, about strong openings, about not coming across as an idiot in your cover letter.  If a writer and a story get me on side early, that goodwill can carry a long way.  If they don't then I'm going to be a lot less inclined to bear with when I find my attention flagging, which is basically always, because I have the attention span of a drunken goat.  I know that sucks, but then so does being annoyed by other people's carelessness, so hey.
  • On that note - the one uniform factor across most everything that's come in, good or bad, recommended or declined, has been weak titles.  And, you know, the title is literally the first thing I pay attention to.  (Actually literally literally this time.)  Not one title has made me think "I want to read that this very second".  One made me want to delete the story before I even looked at it, but I didn't, because I'm a professional goddammit.  But please everyone, put more thought into your titles.
  • And let's end on a positive: as I said up top, the general standard of everything I've read has been particularly strong.  Again, I'm basically looking for excuses to stop reading here, and yet there hasn't been much that I bounced before I was, say, eight pages in.  Admittedly, there also hasn't been a great deal that I'd call really mind-blowingly extraordinary, but a baseline of very good is more than I'd dared hope for.  There are clearly a lot of people writing really strong fantasy fiction out there, which is reassuring to know.
So send something in, why not?  Preferably something outstandingly amazing, with a never-before-seen title, in flawless standard manuscript format and with a cover letter so brief that it verges on coy.  Am I asking too much?  Hell, no!  I am slush reader, here me roar.